MONDAY 1 MARCH
We slept in the car overnight in Mardle Way car park, Buckfastleigh, in South Devon, and as Alan foot-pumped his off-side front tyre up, the dawn chorus of several European Robins could be heard. The tyre had a slow puncture and was to rip to shreds later in the day.
There was a light frost at dawn and this was followed by a glorious day, with light winds, clear skies and wall-to-wall sunshine. Daylight dawned at 0635 hours.
BUCKFASTLEIGH (SOUTH DEVON)
DIPPER was our first target of the day and after an hour search, I eventually located the resident pair on the River Dart 100 yards downstream of the main bridge (194).
This same bridge also produced 4 MANDARIN DUCKS (drake and three females), whilst a total of 8 GREY WAGTAILS was seen between this bridge and that at Kilbury and the Kilbury Water Treatment Works.
BROADSANDS BEACH CAR PARK (SOUTH DEVON)
(0812 hours) Alan located a superb male CIRL BUNTING feeding in the car park just as we turned into it, constituting my second year-tick of the day (195). It was feeding on seeds at the edge of the tarmac and afforded outstanding views; it was also in full breeding attire.
At Mike Langman's feeding station at the far side of the second car park and left of the beach huts, 4 more CIRL BUNTINGS were feeding, along with 12 Dunnocks, 3 Reed Buntings (including a male), a Song Thrush and several Chaffinches. The Alder trees in the car park held Goldfinch and Greenfinch.
PRESTON BEACH, TOR BAY (SOUTH DEVON)
(0900 hours) There was no sign of yesterday's Red-necked Grebe but 3 Great Crested Grebes, a close-knit party of 10 BLACK-NECKED GREBES, several Shags and roosting Oystercatchers and Turnstones were seen.
DAWLISH WARREN (SOUTH DEVON)
It was thick fog when we arrived and much of the warren and sea were shrouded in it. Fortunately, as I walked out towards the point, it cleared somewhat out over the sea and I was able to locate the overwintering adult female SURF SCOTER about 300 yards offshore. Visibility gradually improved with the bird's Ruddy Duck-like stifftail being characteristic (196). At least 12 COMMON SCOTERS were also present offshore, along with two female Red-breasted Mergansers.
EXE ESTUARY (SOUTH DEVON)
We searched extensively for the adult Red-breasted Goose of unknown origin but despite locating all of the wintering Brents on the estuary, it was nowhere to be found. It had been reported on Sunday.
A flock of 250 Dark-bellied Brent Geese were commuting between the estuary and Starcross Golf Course, with another 800 or more in fields by the Turf Hotel north of Powderham Church. The latter were checked on four separate occasions during the day including at high tide - with the Red-breasted Goose nowhere to be found.
At low tide, 200+ PIED AVOCETS were on the estuary, along with large numbers of other waders, including Oystercatcher, Curlew, Common Redshank, Grey Plover and Dunlin.
A CETTI'S WARBLER was heard from reeds by Exminster Marshes RSPB reserve car park.
EXMINSTER VLLAGE (SOUTH DEVON)
The 'Greenhouse Fields' at the top end of Deepway Lane, west out of Exminster, yielded just two of the 8 wintering WOODLARKS (my 197th species of the year), 13 Linnets and a Common Snipe, but no sign of any Cirl Buntings.
RIVER OTTER AT BUDDLEIGH SALTERTON (SOUTH DEVON)
Grazing in fields on the west side of the River Otter 200 yards upstream of the beach car park, I quickly located the wintering WHIMBREL (198) feeding with 15 Eurasian Curlews. Just as Alan joined me, the flock were spooked and flew on to the River Otter mud. A Common Snipe was also in the fields, whilst vast numbers of roosting gulls were on the estuary.
AYLESBEARE COMMON (SOUTH DEVON)
Thanks to Mark Bailey, I was quickly able to locate a scolding DARTFORD WARBLER on Aylesbeare Common. Leaving the car park and main road, the bird was 75 yards east of the crossroads 150 yards north along the tarmac access track. It was a corking adult male and I was absolutely delighted that at least this one bird had survived the harsh winter conditions. It came out on top of the gorse on four separate occasions and burst into quiet subsong on several occasions. It represented my 199th species of the year.
DAWLISH WARREN (SOUTH DEVON)
(1600 hours; high tide) We returned south to Dawlish Warren where in much better weather and light conditions, the adult female SURF SCOTER was performing impeccably well. It was very close inshore directly out from the Boathouse Inn, enabling all of the salient features to be noted (swollen grey bill profile, oval off-white patch behind bill-base, whitish spot behind eye, cocked-up tail). Alan was delighted with the views, particularly as he arrived too late to see the bird well earlier in the morning.
POWDERHAM (SOUTH DEVON)
Up to 800 Dark-bellied Brent Geese were north of Powderham Corner late afternoon, with 2 Rock Pipits showing well on the seawall 200 yards north of the railway crossing and 2 Little Egrets in the 'White House' fields.
MEARE HEATH, SHAPWICK HEATH NNR (SOMERSET)
Arrived just ten minutes after the three first-winter Glossy Ibises flew west to roost - blow!
The COMMON STARLING roost however was truly spectacular, with some 50,000 birds or more flighting into the reedbed at the Ashcott Corner end of South Drain.
At least one EURASIAN BITTERN was booming, with many WATER RAILS squealing and perhaps 25 CETTI'S WARBLERS calling.
Our West Country trip was now over but in all I had scored 12 new birds.